Camille Paglia: Wrong About Sex Ed

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We never know which Camille Paglia is going to show up: brilliant intellectual, freelance anti-Christ, or tunnel-visioned provocateur.

It was the latter Paglia who wrote a recent piece in Time Magazine cleverly titled “Put the sex back in sex ed.” Of course, we sex educators have been urging this for decades. But that’s not what her article is actually about. She says we should inject gender politics into sex education. As a bonus, she also exposes her ignorance about a number of common sex education issues.

Harking back to the world of Leave It To Beaver, Paglia demands that “The genders should be separated for sex counseling.” More stunningly, she says that boys need lessons in sexual ethics, “while girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity.” Hello Camille, this is 1955 calling, they want their stereotypes back.

Besides, if that’s the key mission for sex education, wouldn’t it be more effectively accomplished by teaching the boys’ and girls’ lessons to both groups, in front of each other?

Paglia describes “the liberal response to conservatives’ demand for abstinence-only sex education” as simply condemning “the imposition of fear and shame on young people.” She then snarks that “perhaps a bit more fear and shame might be helpful in today’s environment.”

Paglia thus makes three mistakes in a single paragraph, which is not surprising when she willfully ignores the science. As a reminder, peer-reviewed, replicated studies from across the country prove:
* abstinence-only programs don’t accomplish their stated goals (abstinence);
* abstinence-only programs create substantial disadvantages (e.g., reducing the use of condoms at first intercourse);
* fear and shame are correlated with lower contraceptive use, less communication with parents about sex, and more unwanted pregnancy.

Paglia does get a few things right: America’s present sex education system is a crazy-quilt of programs, whose content is vulnerable to local political pressure. Sex ed teachers are not always adequately trained, especially those presenting abstinence-only programs. And Paglia, along with the entire rest of the world, correctly notes that young people are bombarded with sexual images and messages, and that young women are ill-prepared to negotiate the sexual attention they attract (adults don’t handle this stuff too well, either).

But Paglia sympathizes with religious conservatives who are concerned that sex ed is “an instrument of secular cultural imperialism, undermining moral values.” In demanding that public schools “not promulgate any ideology,” does that include proper names for body parts like the clitoris? Mention that masturbation is the most common form of sexual expression, and is physically and emotionally harmless? Data that the medical dangers of abortion are lower than the dangers of childbirth?

Describing religious objections to sex ed as fear of cultural imperialism is exactly how the Chinese justify censoring the internet: they equate truth with ideology.

Here’s perhaps the nuttiest of Paglia’s assertions: “Too often, sex education defines pregnancy as a pathology, for which the cure is abortion.” Here’s a more accurate version: “The best sex education notes that pregnancy is a common outcome of unprotected intercourse, explains how to prevent it, and acknowledges that abortion is one common response to unwanted pregnancy.”

Paglia ends with her prescriptions for improving sex ed. As if she thought them up herself, she demands things we professional sex educators have been urging for years:
• Objective biology, taught by qualified teachers;
• Accurate, health-oriented information about STDs, including information about condoms;
• Non-judgmental answers about the health implications of various sexual practices.

Welcome to our professional world, Camille Paglia, we’re glad to have your support. To get closer to the goals you say you share with us, please support teaching males and females in the same room (beginning the mutual communication they’ll need for their actual sexual interactions), and please trust that humans can learn better decision-making without being shamed or guilt-tripped.

But get out of the way if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin’.

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